I’ve been meaning to write this post for a while, but just haven’t gotten around to it. A recent (great!) article by Jeffrey Tucker finally pushed me to put pen to paper…. or keyboard to blog. Anyway.
Here’s the short version: I love being a priest.
‘Great, Father – I could have gotten that from the title of this post. Care to elaborate?’ As a matter of fact, yes! And in more words than I probably need to – but since you asked……
I’ll start with why this is even worth posting. It seems to me that a lot of people have this idea that priesthood is all about sacrifice, suffering and shouldering a cross that no one else wants to carry. We’re the guys who give up the joys of marriage, children and sex, make a promise of obedience to not only the current (arch)bishop but also his successors and work in whatever assignment we’re given for a small amount of pay. As one of my seminary priest professors would often say – ‘Long hours, low pay, no sex – why can’t we sell this thing?!?’
My parents, especially during my time in seminary, would often relate stories of people who would come up to them and offer their brand of reassurance: ‘Don’t worry, I’m sure they’ll let priests marry someday’. The comeback lines that my parents eventually thought up were pretty hilarious, though the joke got stale as the realization sank in that folks weren’t kidding.
As a priest, there have been countless times when parents – upon hearing encouragement for their son to consider priesthood, or for them to encourage their son – have responded ‘I want him to experience life first’ or ‘I want grandchildren’. The subtext is often one of fear that the life of a priest is a limited, unhappy one.
I don’t know how much farther from the truth that fear could be!
Let’s start with the basics – the six promises that every priest makes at ordination:
Do you resolve, with the help of the Holy Spirit, to discharge without fail the Office of Priesthood in the presbyteral rank, as a worthy fellow worker with the Order of Bishops in caring for the Lord’s flock?
Do you resolve to exercise the ministry of the word worthily and wisely, preaching the Gospel and teaching the Catholic faith?
Do you resolve to celebrate faithfully and reverently, in accord with the Church’s tradition, the mysteries of Christ, especially the sacrifice of the Eucharist and the Sacrament of Reconciliation, for the glory of God and the sanctification of the Christian people?
Do you resolve to implore with us God’s mercy upon the people entrusted to your care by observing the command to pray without ceasing?
Do you resolve to be united more closely every day to Christ the High Priest, who offered Himself for us to the Father as a pure sacrifice, and with Him to consecrate yourself to God for the salvation of all?
Do you promise obedience and respect to me and my successors?
The first three promises
Isn’t it funny how the the first three promises that a priest make – arguably the most important – aren’t what we focus on? Think about what a priest is promising! Worthily discharging without fail the office of priesthood, exercising the ministry of the word worthily and wisely, celebrating faithfully & reverently the mysteries of Christ.
I don’t know about you, but the word ‘worthily’ – put in not once, but in two of these promises – scares the bejesus out of me! And yet, it is that sense of unworthiness that makes priesthood such a joy. Notice how the sacrifice of the Eucharist and the Sacrament of Reconciliation are highlighted in the third promise. If there is ever a time when I feel unworthy, its at the consecration of the Eucharist and in the act of absolution.
It is also the highlight of my day.
There have been innumerable times in the confessional when a penitent comes in and I have been absolutely blown away. Not by their sins. Heck, that’s the most boring part of confession! No, the most amazing thing about confession is the contrition, the bravery, the desire to do right – even if it means abasing themselves to a priest and being subjected to whatever tongue-lashing their imagination comes up with. While these saints in the making pour out their desire for holiness, I sit on the other side of the screen and wonder if I will ever be as humble as them! What a privilege to be trusted so freely, to be able to offer some small tidbit of friendly counsel, to forgive the sins that are weighing them down. Before I was a priest, I very rarely had been entrusted with the baring of a person’s soul. Now it happens all the time!
Preaching & teaching
In Jeffrey Tucker’s article I linked above, he wonders at the requirement of priests to preach (daily!) and teach. Most priests would probably agree that getting in front of people to preach on really important things was not the primary enticement to priesthood.
What I didn’t expect was how much I would enjoy preaching. It’s not the enjoyment of some sort of power trip or captive audience kind of thing. No, its the joy of bringing people to see the joy of God’s love for them. It is one of my favorite exercises in Mass: to make people realize that God loves them dearly. The question for each homily is how Christ is calling me and my people to be just a little closer to Himself. When I hear people laugh at their sinfulness, see them furrow their brow at a challenge to their complacency, watch them nod at a truth they hadn’t considered or even shake their head at teaching they can’t yet accept – I know that God is stirring something up in them! I get to be a part of that in every homily.
Of all the things that worried me as a priest, one of the biggest was that I would be bored (!) as a priest on Sundays. I know that sounds especially bad but after all, if sitting through several Masses on Sunday didn’t appeal to me (it didn’t), how could saying several be much different?
Well, the people, for one! Mass is foremost about worshiping God, but it is always done in community. Even when I offer Mass alone, the people are there – if only in prayer intentions. The 8am Mass at my parish is a particular group and style, the 10am Mass is a different bunch and the noon Mass has its own character. People respond in expression, word and song different between each mini-community – and in different ways themselves each Sunday. Every Mass shows me a new facet of my people (and in turn, a new face of me to them).
There is nothing quite like looking out on a congregation of tens or hundreds and knowing them well. Joys or sorrows, I am privileged to know intimately the struggles, triumphs and needs of most of my parishioners. They’ve brought them to each Mass and are offering them alongside the bread and wine at the altar I stand at. And because I am a priest, I am able to make present the sacrifice that brings healing and forgiveness, strength and hope.
Pray without ceasing
The anchor of my day is the Liturgy of the Hours. If you don’t know much about it, I highly recommend Seth Murray’s book ‘Lord Open my Lips‘ as a primer on what it is and how to pray it. In short, it is five prayers spaced out over the day that every clergyman has promised to pray daily.
And we need it! Not because our life is so hard, but because it is much clearer as a priest just how inadequate I am – how unworthy I am to do this thing. Prayer conveys my needs and all of the needs that I have received to God. It also keeps me grounded: this isn’t about me, its about God! He’s doing the heavy lifting, I’m just the messenger. And what a relief that is! Prayer keeps me humble, and helps me be reminded that I’m a sinner too – and that I’m also loved by Christ. Over my brief few years as a priest, I’ve found this promise to be the most personally beneficial of them all.
Celibacy and obedience
These tend to be the ‘biggies’ that everyone focuses on. ‘It must be so hard’, ‘How can you stand it?’, ‘What if you change your mind?’. Its almost like people think we priests woke up one morning and were ordained. It makes me smile – you realize that we knew about this in advance right? For most of us, there were years and years of discernment and training to make sure we fully understood what this meant. Heck, most married people don’t have that much preparation even when combining time dating and marriage prep!
Here’s the real shocker of these two promises: these are kinda the least heavy. No really.
Take celibacy. To most people that translates as no marriage, no sexual intimacy, no children – and they’re not wrong. But that’s not the whole story. It’s also a commitment to finding that personal connection in my relationship with God and with people at large. That means being open & honest with God, myself and with people everywhere. Instead of tightly focusing on a single human relationship and that in a romantic way, I am called to focus on each relationship that comes my way – and be open to being a way for God to fulfill that person’s need.
Practically speaking, the benefits of celibacy play out in the trust that it engenders in people. As a priest – who is neither married nor looking to be married – both husband and wife are more trusting that I will be both neutral and supportive when they come to me with an issue. Single men know that a priest has a bead on the kind of life and struggles that they share. Single women can trust that a priest is a man who is interested in them as a person, not as a romantic interest.
Celibacy makes all of that – and much more – possible in the relationship of a priest to his people. It also enables a priest to focus on his own relationship to God, turning to Him for support and consolation.
And I would add that as a military brat who has seen a fair number of latchkey kids and broken marriages from the stresses of that life, I wouldn’t want any woman or children to have to put up with the divided attention I would be forced to give them if I was married and a priest. Celibacy is also practical!
And what about obedience? Is it the slavery that people think it is? Definitely not! Obedience to my archbishop means that I am relieved of the burden of command. Oh I have authority, both in parish life and as a priest, but it all comes from him. I am an extension of the archbishop; he has the fullness of Holy Orders and has entrusted a portion of that to me.
Obedience doesn’t mean blinding following orders: if the archbishop were to tell me to do something immoral or against Church law, I would rightly refuse. But short of that, he’s the boss! He is a successor to the Apostles themselves. The Pope chose him to be a bishop and selected him to lead this archdiocese. If I believe that the Holy Spirit is guiding the Church – and I do – then I believe that the Holy Spirit is guiding Her bishops! Can they make mistakes? Sure! But that’s on them (just like our mistakes are on us). I pray for my archbishop every day – and I do what he tells me. It’s the greatest line I’ve got: “that’s what the archbishop has told me to do”. It’s really quite liberating.
In the end (and two thousand words later….), I still have the same thing to say: I love being a priest. It’s not without it’s struggles and trials. Some days I come home discouraged, even disheartened. Most days I come home wondering how I got so lucky to be in this gig….. and when the archbishop is going to call me to tell me it’s all a big mistake!
In the USCCB video ‘Fishers of Men‘, one of the priests interviewed remarked how he believed that in order to be the man he was called to be, he had to be a priest. I wholeheartedly agree. For those of us who are called, priesthood is how we are called to not only be the men we are meant to be, but to know the greatest joys God has in store for us this side of heaven.
To you men considering priesthood or hearing the call I say this: Come on in, the water’s fine!